Sweets

Confession of an escapist cook, Hong Kong-style milk tea gelato

(I stood there) mildly confused about what just happened.  But a long-overdue sense of consolation and the temporary release from anger and malcontent forbid me to investigate.

 

(An edited version was published on Heathyish).

In a sweltering, Hong Kong summer afternoon only slightly tempered by the torrential rain that had just begun to batter the island, I stood in my kitchen trying to figure out the golden ratio for brewing a cup of silky Hong Kong-style milk tea, a legacy of course left by the city’s British colonial past, while on TV across the room, a black blanket of soaking wet protesters numbering in over a million stretching as far as the eye can see, were marching for Hong Kong’s future.

Democracy, is what’s on their table.

I felt a sense of commotion creeping up my chest as I tried to drown it by scorching the tea leaves with my screeching kettle, watching them tumble and twirl inside the tea pot in a hopeless toil.  But it did little to distract me from realizing, once again, what a familiar predicament I am in.  Because the very reason that I am in Hong Kong, is precisely because I was determined to leave the place that Hong Kong is becoming in its current trajectory – and fighting not to be – China.

In 2008, after the titanic economic crash that would later come to be know as The Great Recession, I left New York with my husband who was offered a job in Hong Kong and later moved to Beijing for its more stable market.  Little did I know, the following six years would become the most turbulent, if not emotionally destructive period of my life.  Under China’s increasingly heavy-handed authoritarian rule, the very act of living in a place clashed violently with what I was brought up to uphold, however naïve, as a principle for democracy and civil rights.  It’s a place where the personal surrender of liberty is made painfully apparent every day, where you are required to be okay with what you’re allowed to watch listen or say, where even the access to VPN (virtual private network to bypass the great firewall) is closely administered under the moody mercy of the Chinese government, which is difficult if not unreachable most times of the year.

Surely, as many would argue, that if you just take it lying down that the daily functions of life can go on like any other places, but I couldn’t just take it, this constant psychological bullying, and the worst of all is knowing that by accepting this oppressive reality in exchange for economic gains, I was in some way, complicit.

But leave… I did not; I stayed; I made dinners; I abided.

Then one night, as mundanely miserable as any other, as if something had snapped, neurologically almost, perhaps prompted by the salted sting of happier people living happier lives in Rome on TV, I hovered into my kitchen in an eerie silence.  I laid out my subjects in a pathological orderliness, unbleached flour with 9% protein, free-range egg yolks, water and salt.  I can still remember plunging my hands into the wetness of this flour mixture, in a trance almost, squeezing choking and tearing it until this unruly and sordid coagulation slowly transformed into a shiny globe of supple, silky and harmonious cohesion.  After impatiently allowing it to unwind, I then force its unsuspecting body through the cold, revolving steels of a pasta machine, watching silently its malleable mass extruded and aligned under the unnegotiable pressure into a pristinely edged and sleek sheet of silk.  Oh the jitters, I paused only momentarily to relish in this anticipated gratification, before I robotically drove repeated incisions into its surrendered body until its severed parts laid in uniform strands on my bare countertop.

For a while I stood there, looking down on my hands encrusted with dried fluids, mildly confused about what had just happened.  But there, a long-overdue sense of consolation and the temporary release from anger and malcontent forbid me to investigate.

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Goat cheese and cherry swirl ice cream

the goat cheese popping untimed and irregular bursts of mild saltiness and cheesy aroma that cuts and balance the sweetness, which then welcomes a current of tangy and floral compote of black cherries and honey

So some of you may already knew from my Instagram that I was forced onto a whiskey distillery tour in Scotland in spite of my lifelong disagreement with this confounding substance.  Although against contrary evidences, I could swear I exercised a generous though painful effort to have fun.  But ultimately, on a jam-packed five days excursion dead set on the sole purpose of hunting and gathering overpriced barley water and thus sidelining the other, infinitely more joyous activity of plowing into flocks of free-roaming sheep at every turn, it’s safe to assume that I absolutely did not.

And this brings us to today’s topic, Mary’s Milk Bar.  If there was any highlights at all in my five days of being unpaid escort, it had to be this highly acclaimed ice cream shop in Edinburgh, sitting just at the foothill against the backdrop of the magnificent Edinburgh’s Castle.  A fine quality creameries aside, what makes Mary’s Milk Bar attractive, to me at least, are her seasonal, unique profiles of unexpected flavors, pistachios and cardamom, orange and almond to name a few.  But I’m not going to focus on the flavors that she already perfected, instead, I want to remake one that I felt could improve to my likings, and that was one called goat cheese and honey.

Even through the cold barrier of the glass window, I could feel the strong attraction of this combination in my imagination, but when I actually tasted it, it fell softly on the promise.  The flavors of the goat cheese was very subtly blended into the smooth cream-base almost to the point of undetectability, which I guess I could understand, for goat cheese being such a pungent driver of tastes that too dominant of a presence could potentially ruin what is meant to be a sweet summer dessert.  But I couldn’t help but reimagining that instead of a smooth blend, the goat cheese should come as frozen bits of surprises scattered throughout a pure and dense cream base, popping untimed and irregular bursts of mild saltiness and cheesy aroma that cuts and balances the sweetness, which would make such an incredibly rich and intense ice cream that welcomes a current of tangy and floral compote of black cherries and honey.

I put my theory to the test.  And let me just say that if I had this with me everyday, I wouldn’t mind the fact that I was on a whiskey tour.

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Granola and no-churn banana ice cream bars

 

IT TASTES LIKE THE LONG MISSING EMPATHY IN ALL HEALTHY BREAKFASTS, AT LAST, FINALY TAKING PITY IN ALL THE UNGODLY URGES WE HUMAN BEINGS HAVE TO DEAL WITH

This is a desperate attempt to counter the tyranny that is summer in Hong Kong while still upholding a minimal level of personal responsibilities such as eating fruits and vegetables, taking fibers, lowering cholesterol and such sad things in life that we all to have bend to at one point or another.  Crunchy yet slightly chewy granola crusts sensibly consisting of rolled oats, corn flakes, seeds and popped grains, sandwiching a less reasonable yet thick layer of no-churn ice cream rampant with cream and sweetened condensed milk, the only good judgment of which is made with the inclusion of two frozen bananas.

It tastes like empathy in a healthy breakfast, at last, finally understanding and taking pity in all the ungodly urges we human beings have to deal with in real life situations.  And I’d say the constancy of 34 degrees celsius with 80% humidity is as real as fuck.

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SINGAPORE HAWKER MARATHON: CRYSTAL DUMPLING (ZONGZI) MADE WITH SAGO PEARLS

 

WHAT:  Beautiful, jewel-like, crystal dumplings called zongzi made purely with sago pearls, which I didn’t actually eat in Singapore.

WHY:  Although, as far as I know, this is technically not a “Singaporean thing”, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t.  Its glossily translucent and elegantly geometric body is made entirely with tapioca sago pearls, making it enthusiastically bouncy, springy, chewy, the most texturally cheerful dumpling out there served cold with coconut dark brown sugar syrup.

HOW:  By soaking and various natural coloring agents, we are turning plain sago pearls into colorful mushy fillings that, through baptism of boiling water, transforms into these gem-like, glassy and slick dumplings that are wonderfully chewy, cooling and simply euphoric to look at.  It’s a texture thing, very much like the addictive quality of tapioca pearls inside boba teas.  The single source of fragrance and flavor that is fused into these dumplings (except the green ones that are made with pandan leaf) depends solely on these spear-shaped leaves, often times called zongye (dumpling leaf), mostly harvested from a particular type of East Asian evergreen bamboos.  It’s hard to describe it to those who haven’t personally experienced it, as it is a truly unique fragrance.  In my best ability, but probably inadequate, I would say it’s a combination of very intense corn husks and grassy tea leaves.

If you feel wary of this unfamiliar ingredient, trust me, once I was too.  But after getting over my illogical fear – one that wasn’t even inconvenient because you can buy these leaves with only a few clicks on your computer – I am now so in love of it that I want to use the leftover, incredibly aromatic cooking water as a base for soups!  And once I’ve learnt how fun it is to shape them, I just want to sit by a sunny window and make zongzi all day long.

Staying in line with the Southeast Asian flavors of this series, I’m proposing a serving syrup made with coconut milk, dark brown sugar and sea salt, mimicking the flavor of palm sugar.  But any other sweethearts like honey, maple syrup, or date syrup will do, too.

 

IT’S A TEXTURE THING!

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Simplified, tall fluffy pancake, stuffed with cheese

NO SEPARATION OF EGG WHITES AND YOLKS, NO WHIPPING THE WHITES AND FOLDING IT BACK IN, AND YEAH, NO MAYONNAISE EITHER.

 

If you use the internet, you’ve probably seen this.  This super lofty, tall and wiggling souffle pancake, said to have originated from Japan, that will surely tickle the feathers of anyone who has a soft sentimental spots for stacked fluffiness.

I, for one, am not a pancake person.  Or at least, not in its traditional form.  But over the years, I’ve been patiently waiting for a game changer that would summon my inner fluff-craze that has been dormant inside my cold, pancake-less heart, and I thought, maybe, this is it.

Well, not quite.

Upon further investigation, I realized that the recipe for this pancake requires violating one of my many holy baking commandments – Thou shalt not ask for the separation of egg white and yolks, separate whippings, and folding them back in.  I am not thy bitch. – carved into a plastic chopping board and hung onto my fridge in permanence to remind me of the gods’ wrath against disobedience.  So typically, if I see such thing, I just walk away.  But something, a small voice inside my head, an imploding honey cake from the old ages perhaps, held my foot in the ground.

Thing is, whole eggs whip up marvelously fine just as well.

If it’s air that we’re after, whipping egg whites separately isn’t always necessary.  I thought, if I could just find the right ratio between flours and whole eggs that are whipped together with sugar until almost mousse-like in consistency, then I can streamline this recipe and turn this batter into a one-bowl, fuss-free and fool-proof epiphany that even I can’t fuck up.

And guess what, I did.  A super tall, lofty, spongy one-bowl batter that doesn’t need separation of white and yolks, no folding the whites back in, and yeah, no mayonnaise either.  My heart should be content.  My inner fluff-craze should awaken and shine lights upon the golden gate that welcomes me towards pancake enlightenment.  Right?

Well, not quite.

Thing is, like all other earnest yet disappointing pancakes that had come before it, flavor-wise, this pancake was still completely boring.  Cottony fluffiness, yeah, but remind me again why I want to eat cotton again?  I sat and stared, faithful, receptive, in waiting.  A sign will come.  It must come.  All these journeys of questions and answers, flipping and flopping, reincarnations and repetitions, can’t all be for nothing.  Pancake must mean something!  It must!

I waddled my slumbering, meditating body towards the fridge for a diet coke, the thought-juice if you will, and out the corner of my eyes, there it was – A Laughing Cow (regrettably not a sponsor).  Of course!  If the gods intend a purpose for this pancake’s spacious and buoyant volume, surely, it would be for nothing else but, stuffing!  And what is better to aid its mildly sweet and airy crumbs if not this exuberantly creamy and contrastingly salty cheese?

I put my theory to work, and it worked.  An unlikely but wondrous pairing that is texturally light yet creamy, flavorfully sweet yet salty, a faintly vanilla sponge moistened with a mildly cheesy funk.  In the end, excused by its entirely oil/butter-free crumbs, a slim waterfall of melted butter and a squirt of honey is appropriately commenced.  Pancake, is that finally you?  Oh where have you been…

 
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SICHUAN PEPPERCORN BLUEBERRY OATMEAL PIE

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A SERIOUSLY FLAKEY PIE

WITH BLUEBERRIES SCENTED WITH FLORAL SICHUAN PEPPERCORNS, MYSTERIOUS AND SUBTLE, AND CREAMY OATMEAL ON THE BOTTOM TO SOAK IT ALL UP

Easy as pie.  I’m sorry.  Was that supposed to be funny?

Pies are anything but easy.  In fact, it took me two years of really, really, humiliatingly sucking at it; and another three years of total denials and nightmarish phobias; and then another year to pick up the pieces of my self-esteem to try again; and then, finally then, last week, before landing on something that I feel happy enough to share with behind closed door.  And today, six years plus a couple tweaks later, to talk about it openly on the internet.  This recipe is my collected wisdoms on pie-making from years of failures and heartbreaks (think those pies as a house presented with a giant sink hole, sewage flooding and electrical fire, all at the same time).

What it is, is a seriously flakey pie, like no-kiddingly flakey, with blueberries scented with a mysterious, floral tone from sichuan peppercorns that is subtle but distinct, and a bed of creamy oatmeals to soak it all up.  The sichuan peppercorns are not gonna make you go “Chinese food!“, ok?, it won’t.  It just perfumes the pie.  And the oatmeals not only prevents the whole “sewage flooding” issue, but is also texturally more superior than gloppy, cornstarch-thickened mess.  In fact, from now on whenever you bake a fruit pie, I suggest you blanket a layer of this on the bottom.  It is thirsty for the collapse of your fruits.

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Now, as a general rule of thumb…  For those people who were born with mutated abilities to make perfect pies since birth, this may not be a big deal.  But I gather that there are also those out there like me with this specific genetic defect, that they might appreciate some tips.  And my tips on How To Not Fuck Up A Pie is – Go Gollum.  A certain conversation amongst “ourselves” should take place inside our head, to remind us every step of the way that, forget one, it all goes to shit.  And my conversation goes like this:

  1.  We wants the butter cold.  We needs the butter cold.
  2.  No “peas”.  Hate peas.  Big, flat diskses of butter created by hands resembling thick coins, are the precious to a super flakey dough.
  3.  Vinegar.  Yes, vinegar works.  Yes.
  4.  Cold.  Liquid, cold.  Everything cold.
  5.  Don’t knead the dough.  It’s better to use plastic-wraps to bring it into disks!  Tricksy.
  6.  The dough.  Cold.  Before doing anything stupid.  Cold
  7.  Cooked fruits are just fruitses but less good.  And mushy.  Whenever we can, add flavors.
  8.  I don’t know where you come from, Smeagol, but “soup” is not a friend of pie.  You want fruit soup, go juice.  This is a pie.  Soak it up.
  9.  Do not bake until the entire pie is COLD!  Motherfucking cold.  Don’t make me.
  10.  Finally, did we do all this for soggy lower crust?  No, no we did not.  Bottom of the oven, 15 min.

Taken that these kind of schizophrenic talks are not always the most well-composed, I’ve detailed every single steps in the recipe-instructions to help you out a bit.  I hope it serves you well.

Happy go pie.

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SICHUAN PEPPERCORN BLUEBERRY OATMEAL PIE

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 cups (325 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp (15 grams) light brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp (3 grams) salt
  • 1 cup (230 grams) unsalted butter, very cold
  • 1/2 cup (120 grams) water
  • 3 tbsp (45 grams) apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup ice cubes
  • SICHUAN PEPPERCORN BLUEBERRY OATMEAL FILLING:
  • 3 cups (460 grams) blueberry
  • 5 tbsp (65 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/4 tsp ground sichuan peppercorns
  • 1 cup (95 grams) quick-cooking oats
  • 2 tbsp (28 grams) dark brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp (26 grams) granulated sugar
  • 2 tbsp (30 grams) whole milk
  • TO BAKE:
  • 1 egg wash
  • Turbinado sugar for sprinkling

Instructions

  1. PREPARE PIE CRUST: You can make the pie crust with food-processor, pastry-cutter, or stand-mixer. But I find that the most flakey crust results from the FLAT pieces of butter created by hands. So. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, light brown sugar and salt. Cut unsalted butter into large pieces, add into the bowl and coat each evenly with flour. With your fingers, create large, flat pieces of butter by rubbing them off of the large chunks. Each time you rub, coat the butter with lots of flour, and the largest pieces should be about the size of large, THICK coins, until you have something that looks like the first photo.
  2. Mix water, apple cider vinegar and ice cubes in a bowl. Scatter 8 tbsp of the liquid into the flour-mixture while fluffing with a fork, then bring the dough together by gently folding and pressing it with your hands. It should be very shaggy, and quite dry with lots of loose crumbs. But if the dough has difficulty coming together (very "sandy"), add 1~2 tbsp more liquid.
  3. Now, don't further knead the dough to try to bring the tiny loose crumbs together (and making it tough). Instead, lay a large piece of plastic-wrap on the counter. Transfer 2/5 of the dough-mixture onto the center of wrap, then bring the sides together until you have a tightly wrapped ball. Press down until it's flattened into a thick disk, then set aside in the fridge. Repeat with the remaining 3/5 of the dough. Let the dough hydrate/chill for at least 30 min, or it can be made the day ahead.
  4. PREPARE FILLING: In one bowl, toss together blueberry, granulated sugar, lemon juice and ground sichuan peppercorns. In another bowl, mix quick oats, dark brown and granulated sugar until even. Transfer 1/4 cup of the oatmeal-mixture into the blueberry and toss evenly. Then add whole milk to the remaining oatmeal-mixture and mix until resembling wet sand. Set both aside.
  5. MAKE/BAKE PIE: Take the larger disk of dough out of the fridge and leave the other chilled. Transfer onto a floured surface and roll it out into a slightly thinner than 1/4" (0.5 cm) sheet. Drape the sheet over your rolling pin, then transfer into a pie pan. Gently press it to fit the pan, then cut off the excess dough around the edge. Scatter the oatmeal-mixture on the bottom in a single layer, then top with the blueberry-mixture. Take the smaller disk out of the fridge, onto a floured surface, then roll it out into the same thickness (you can now do cutouts or patterns that you like). Brush the rim of the lower pie crust with egg wash, then drape the top crust over and gently pinch the edges to seal.
  6. Now CHILL YOUR PIE IN THE FREEZER FOR AT LEAST 30 MIN!!. Start preheating the oven AFTER you form the pie, so it forces you to wait for the pie to chill properly, which is paramount. Now, preheat the oven on 365 F/185 C.
  7. Brush the entire pie surface with egg wash then sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake in the middle rack for 25 min, then move the pie to sit right at the very bottom of the oven and bake for another 15 min (this gives you that nice crispy bottom-crust instead of soggy one).
  8. Let cool for 15 min, then serve with scoops of ice creams (blueberry!).

Notes

The sweetness level of this pie lands on the mild side, as how I like it. If you want sweeter pie, add more sugar to the blueberries in Step 4.

https://ladyandpups.com/2016/09/07/sichuan-peppercorn-blueberry-oatmeal-pie/

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ZERO-FOLDING PASTEL DE NATA, A HYBRID

Ever since I came back from Lisbon, the question haunts me.

What is a perfect pastel de nata?

Well for me, now more than ever, that depends on who you’re asking.

If you were from the Asian parts of the world as I am, growing up, this wildly popular pastry since the 90’s actually came from, and have always been, more as a Macao thing.  Sure it’s known as the Portuguese-style egg tarts from Macao, the former Portugal colony famed for its many Portugal-influenced hybrid foods, but notice that it is NOT called pastel de nada, not even Portuguese egg tart, but ambiguously, “Portugese-STYLE” egg tart.  Style?  The name itself oozes deniability, suggesting that on one level or another, these tarts can’t be expected as a 100% identical replica of the originals, but a mere adaptation of some sort.  Therefore with time, as the popularity of these tarts swept through every bakeries in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even KFC (yes, they sell these at KFC here…), the Portuguese association sort of fell irrelevant, and the gold standard on what is a great pastel de nata, in Asia at least, is set on however it is made in Macao.  And really, most people don’t have a clue on what the real thing is like.

But I’ve always wondered about this.  I mean is “Portuguese-style egg tart” even a thing in Portugal?  Do people even actually eat this stuff there or is it another freaky fortune cookie-phenomenon?  And if they do, the question isn’t if it was the same from Macao, because I know there was no chance in hell that they’re the same.  But the question is, how different?

So a couple months ago when I finally visited Lisbon for the first time, I was on a quest for truth.  I didn’t know what to expect, but almost as immediately as we landed at the airport, truth no 1 revealed itself.  Pastel de nada is definitely a thing in Portugal.  I mean, they were everywhere, as common as bagels in NY or surfers in L.A.  Well great, fantastic, because it allowed me to conduct an in-depth and thoroughly tasted investigation on truth no 2, which is, how different are the real things from Macao’s?  Well, this was where the troubles began.  They are, as expected, quite different on many textural levels, and now…

I’m completely torn.

I ASSURE YOU THAT THIS CONCLUSION, WHETHER YOU AGREE WITH IT OR NOT, CAME AFTER MUCH TORMENTS, SELF-REFLECTIONS AND EVEN SOME SOUL-SEARCHING ON WHO I AM AS A SENTIENT PASTRY EATER… (BUT THE ANSWER TO) WHAT IS ULTIMATELY A PERFECT PASTEL DE NATA?

WELL, A HYBRID

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